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Republicans back GenX bills, but lawyers call them a sham

May 18th, 2018

— Legislative Republicans filed companion bills Thursday empowering the governor to shut down Chemours if it continues to pollute the water in Bladen County and beyond, a move immediately panned by environmental attorneys who said the state already has this power and the bill could actually stymie enforcement.

The bills also contain funding to address the GenX issue, but it’s sure to continue the fight between the GOP majority and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration over how that money should be spent and who should control it.

House and Senate Republicans said identical bills filed in both chambers, House Bill 972 and Senate Bill 724, would be “the first to hold the company that discharged GenX into the region’s water supply financially responsible for its actions.” The bills are sponsored by a coalition of southeastern lawmakers from both chambers, representing a compromise between House and Senate Republicans who, until now, have differed on key aspects of the state’s response.

Cape Fear River
Timeline: Tracking GenX contamination in NC

GenX is part of a family of chemicals found in the air, ground and water and emitted by Chemours from its Fayetteville Works plant, where it makes chemicals for a variety of industries. The chemical’s health effects are not well studied, but a similar chemical it replaced was tied to cancer.

GenX’s presence in Wilmington’s drinking water sparked public fear and anger when the Wilmington StarNews broke the news last year.

River discharges have since stopped, but this chemical and others have been found in rainwater and in the ground, polluting wells near the plant and washing into the river when it rains. State officials have said the water is believed to be safe to drink in the quantities typically shown now in treated water.

Chemours has said it’s cooperating with state regulators and that the state has overreacted, given the minuscule quantities of GenX now in water supplies. It has also provided bottled water to nearby residents and agreed to install a system to scrub GenX from its air stacks, a process that will take more than a year.

A press release from Republican leadership in the House and Senate Thursday stressed the legislation’s opening section, which authorizes the governor to shut down industrial plants under certain conditions, including the discharge of per‑ and poly‑fluoroalkyl substances, a category that includes GenX.

But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which called on the state Department of Environmental Quality last week to declare an emergency and shut down air emissions at the plant, said the bills are pure politics. The center’s attorneys have threatened Chemours with a federal lawsuit in addition to the legal action DEQ has begun and said the state has the power – and an obligation – to shut the plant down if necessary to stop air emissions.

This new legislation “imposes multiple requirements on the Governor before he can order a facility that is potentially poisoning people to cease all polluting operations,” SELC Chapel Hill Director Derb Carter said in a release.

“This is pointless given the Governor’s existing authority, and appears intended to protect the polluter, Chemours,” Carter said.

The state’s Sierra Club chapter had the same read, saying the bill “may create confusion” by questioning the state’s current authority.

“This in turn potentially undermines enforcement cases DEQ has filed in court under existing authority,” the Sierra Club said in a statement. “Rather than giving the Governor new authority, the bill creates new roadblocks to enforcement.”

Shelly Carver, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, said the bill was meant, in part, to remove doubt.

“Given that DEQ has seemed unwilling to take strong action against Chemours to date, we want to make sure there is no question the governor has the authority to shut down chronic polluters who won’t clean up their act,” she said.

The legislation would also set up a framework to make Chemours provide “an alternate permanent water supply” for people with private wells showing GenX concentrations above the state’s health standard, House and Senate Republicans said in a news release. It includes $2 million in grants to help local governments extend municipal water to impacted homes, with Chemours reimbursing taxpayers.

It also sends money to various agencies, with the biggest pot of $8 million going to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is a facility set up by the legislature and run by a former policy adviser to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Environmental groups and Democrats have called repeatedly for the larger pots of funding to flow to DEQ, which has seen budget cuts under the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

These bills earmark $1.8 million for DEQ, largely to purchase a mass spectrometer and hire new staff to test for GenX and other chemicals. This was a move backed early this year by the House, but rejected by the Senate. Legislators from both chambers apparently hashed out a compromise Wednesday afternoon during closed-door meetings.

Competing legislation filed Thursday by Democrats from the Wilmington area, House Bill 968, would give DEQ significantly more new funding, along the lines of what Cooper has called for.

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